You Know You’re at the Wrong Conference When . . .

Our icy plane at Salt Lake International Airport

Our icy plane at Salt Lake International Airport

I realize this will be out of order. I still have two days of my SOFIA trip last June to report on, and now it’s suddenly January and I’m in Washington, D.C. I want to describe my experiences here in almost real time, so I will get back to SOFIA later.

The lobby of the Gaylord National Resort at National Harbor, Maryland. Site for the 2014 AAS Conference.

The lobby of the Gaylord National Resort at National Harbor, Maryland. Site for the 2014 AAS Conference.

But first a little introduction of how I came to be here. After seeing SOFIA in action this summer, I wanted to have the opportunity to utilize such data with my students. I had heard of the NASA/IPAC Teacher Archive Research Program (NITARP) before and had even applied for it two years ago, but we weren’t selected. It was from my rejection letter that I heard of the SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program that I am now a part of. Here is a link to the NITARP website: http://nitarp.ipac.caltech.edu/

The atrium of the Gaylord National Resort

The atrium of the Gaylord National Resort

Last year I accidentally misread the deadline date and barely missed it. I vowed this year I would create the most compelling application possible, which was due in September. Within two weeks I was notified by Dr. Luisa Rebull, director of the program, that we had been accepted, along with six other schools for this year’s class.

A Firefly at the conference. Now all I need are some Browncoats . . .

A Firefly at the conference. Now all I need are some Browncoats . . .

NITARP is a chance for teachers and their students to make real astronomical discoveries and communicate them professionally. We will use the infrared image and data archives at IPAC, the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. These images and their metadata were acquired by the Spitzer Space Telescope and saved in .fits format, which I’ve talked about previously. Part of our training will be how to use and analyze these .fits files. The students will be matched with a mentor astronomer, and together they will create a poster to be presented at the 2015 American Astronomical Society conference, to be held in Seattle, Washington.

Standard dress for the AAS conference

Standard dress for the AAS conference

But to help me see how all of this will work, the NITARP program is sending all of us newbies to the AAS conference this year, which is held at the Gaylord National Resort in National Harbor, Maryland just outside of Washington, D.C. and across the Potomac River from Alexandria, VA.

Yes, exhibit halls sometimes do feel like dungeons . . .

Yes, exhibit halls sometimes do feel like dungeons . . .

I flew out of Salt Lake International Airport this morning after our plane was de-iced (it snowed a few inches last night). The flight was uneventful, and I watched “Star Trek Into Darkness” on my iPad to pass the time. Flying in to Reagan National Airport, we had a great view of National Cathedral and the Washington Monument (with the scaffolding almost gone) as we turned over the Potomac to align with the runway.

Who ya gonna call?

Who ya gonna call?

One of the people in my SuperShuttle van to the hotel was also a new NITARPer (Ni-Twerp?) from Colorado. The hotel/resort was very obvious as we crossed Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge into Maryland. It has a large glass atrium facing the river, and it even snows inside on demand.

A blue goat . . . so maybe I'm at the wrong conference?

A blue goat . . . so maybe I’m at the wrong conference?

I got my room assignment and headed up the elevators, but noticed that the hotel seemed rather crowded already, and that a number of people were dressed up in science fiction costumes. I hadn’t know what the standard dress code was for the AAS conference, and was surprised to see such as casual, festive atmosphere. Most of the attendees seemed quite young and nerdish, although you get that at any science conference. I figured they must be astronomy graduate students who had come early. There did seem to be some partying going on, as the music level was a bit loud coming from some of the rooms I passed and people were arriving with six-packs and pizza boxes. I guess those graduate students really like to unwind after studying galaxies and black holes all the time.

The Gravity Gun, a revolution in quantum physics. Or something . . .

The Gravity Gun, a revolution in quantum physics. Or something . . .

I went exploring the hotel/resort/convention center and as I saw even more unusual costumes, such as elves and fireflies and various types of animals in slinky leotards, I began to wonder if I was at the right conference. One person was dressed as a Ghostbuster. OK, so a bit out there, but having an unlicensed nuclear reactor strapped to your back is not entirely out of the range of possibility for an astronomer. Then there was the guy dressed as a blue goat – I think it was a guy. But if there are Blue Goats here then perhaps there could be Brown Coats. No power in the ‘verse can stop them. Then there was the guy with the Gravity Gun. I can’t wait to hear his presentation next week . . .

But what clinched my doubts was the heavy metal rock band concert playing in one of the Ballrooms. That just doesn’t sound like astronomers to me. Well, OK, maybe – but I finally asked someone and found that this is the second day of the MAGFest (Music and Gaming Festival), a huge gamer’s celebration held here each year. It continues tomorrow (here’s the link: http://magfest.org/). Then on Monday the astronomers take over, and the real party begins!

I was starving by this time and went walking outside in the bitter cold that has descended across the Midwest and East Coast. I found a place called Potbelly’s Sandwich Works and struck up a conversation with two people waiting in line. They were both here for MAGFest, and told me the attendance is huge and growing – 6000 two years ago, 9000 last year, and 12,000 this year. No wonder the hotel is packed. One of them is studying computational neuroscience, the other teaches programming and uses Raspberry Pi machines, as I am hoping to do. I felt a bit more at home talking with them instead of the Catwoman in the leotard. The sandwich I had is called The Wreck and it was excellent.

When you see the Southern Cross for the first time . . .

When you see the Southern Cross for the first time . . .

Back at the hotel, I talked with my wife who is visiting her parents in Chile. They are just south of Santiago, and I had asked her to do a little vicarious astronomy for me. I’ve never been to the Southern Hemisphere before, so I had her look for the Southern Cross and Alpha Centauri. After some orientation with me using Stellarium on my computer while talking on the phone to her in Chile, she finally found the Cross and Alpha and Beta Centauri, along with Canopus. Maybe one of these days I’ll see the Southern Cross for the first time. Now I have that song stuck in my head. But isn’t technology wonderful? I can watch Captain Kirk battle Kahn (spoiler alert!) while flying on an airplane and walk my wife through the southern constellations while she’s in a completely different hemisphere.

I will attempt to write a blog on my impressions after each one of my five days of this AAS conference, as well as what I can see of MagFest. A group of gamers just walked past my door discussing ectoplasm in heated voices. Just wait for the real fireworks about dark matter, exoplanets, and federal funding over the next few days! This is going to be an interesting week.

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About davidvblack

I teach courses in multimedia, 3D animation, 8th grade science, chemistry, astronomy, engineering design, STEAM, and computer science at American Academy of Innovation in South Jordan, Utah. Previously, I taught similar courses at Walden School of Liberal Arts in Provo, Utah and Media Design Technology courses at Mountainland Applied Technology College (MATC) in Orem, Utah. I am part of the Teachers for Global Classrooms program through the U.S. Department of State and will be traveling to Indonesia in the summer of 2017 as an education ambassador and global educator. I am passionate about STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics); science history; photography; graphic design; 3D animation; and video production. My Spaced-Out Classroom blog is for sharing lessons and activities my students have done in astronomy. The Elements Unearthed project will combine my interests to document the discovery, history, sources, uses, mining, refining, and hazards of the chemical elements in the form of audio, video, and written podcasts that all can share and learn from.
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